Municipality of Pontiac: allegations, accusations and few answers

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Added: Wed, 01/30/2019 - 3:46pm
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Lynne Lavery

MUNICIPALITY OF PONTIAC – For years the Municipality of Pontiac has suffered from a fractious relationship between some residents and their council.   Mayor Joanne Labadie’s council has not been spared, and the Journal has also been accused of biased coverage of municipal meetings.
Most recently, late December, 2018, some residents used social media
to comment on the “termination” of former Director-General, Ben Kuhn, as well
as the 2019 budget deliberations; rude accusations were directed against the mayor.
DG ends his contract
On November 28 and December 4, 2018, according to on-line council minutes, Special Meetings of Council and Kuhn discussed the “termination” of the DG’s contract.  The rumours claimed that Mr Kuhn was fired, and the mayor lied in public saying Kuhn had “resigned”.  Mr Kuhn told the Journal, “These meetings were to arrive at an agreement regarding my leaving the municipality’s employ. I had decided it was time to move on, and my last day of work was to be December 31.”  Kuhn added, “I was not fired, nor was I working two jobs at once!” 
On January 7, 2019,  Kuhn became Director of Development at TransCollines bus lines; news of his hiring, however, had been posted on the TransCollines website
earlier.
The minutes of both Special Meetings show that on November 28 the mayor and council voted unanimously to have a lawyer present during negotiations about Kuhn’s departure. This meeting lasted 4 minutes; Me Marie-Claude Perreault, a labour lawyer from Montreal, was chosen to accompany the mayor in the negotiations. At the December meeting, lasting less than 4 minutes, the vote to accept the agreed severance terms was again unanimous,.
Why was speculation posted on social media, and raised again at the January 15, 2019, regular council meeting, that Mr Kuhn had been fired?  Is this simply a misunderstanding of “termination”?
Google translation states that “termination” refers to bringing something to its end, or something coming to an end (ie., ending of a contract). Termination is also a legal term used to describe the end of employment, with two types of termination possible:  voluntary (resignation or retirement) or involuntary (dismissal or a shortage of work).  It appears that council was acting legally, working out a mutual agreement to make sure Kuhn’s distinct contract as Director-General was respected. 
Secret budget meeting?
Council held its annual budget meeting, December 20, 2018. Notices were posted on three firehall bulletin boards and in the municipal hall eight days in advance. Usually, notices are also posted on the municipality’s website and sometimes on social media, but the unexpected grief leave of the employee responsible for such postings meant that both internet postings were missed. When one resident complained, an on-line posting was made the day before the meeting. Despite this, another resident, attending that meeting, accused council of holding it “illegally”. The mayor disagreed, but said the municipal lawyer would check council’s posting obligations on the Municipal Code.
Another complaint criticised the meeting’s change in venue, from the usual community centre, then unavailable due to a blood donor clinic, to the library in the same building.  Forty chairs were available; about a dozen people attended. The budget was tabled.  
The Law
In June, 2017, Quebec’s National Assembly adopted Bill 122, giving municipalities more autonomy and powers.  Section 345.1 states [in part]: “A Municipality may, by
by-law, set the terms of publication for its public notices. These terms may differ according to the type of notice, but the by-law must prescribe their publication on the internet……” 
At the January 15 council meeting, Mayor Labadie replied that the municipality’s lawyers had reviewed the by-law. According to them, legal requirements for posting the meeting had been fulfilled.  When asked to produce the lawyers’ ruling, Labadie said it was “confidential”.
Mayor Labadie has told the Journal that By-law 16-05-2778, with requirements for posting public notices, was created in 2016 by the previous council. The Journal found the by-law ambiguous; it states that “public notices are now displayed virtually and occasionally on our website …”, and “Public notices will now be posted physically only at the following locations …”, listing where in fact the budget notices had been posted. 
Labadie added, “This is an older by-law, and states that for budget meetings posting must be made at 3 municipal fire halls and at the town hall, eight days in advance; this was done.  In the past, council has also used on-line postings as a courtesy, but this time, due to unfortunate circumstances, [explained above] we weren’t able to do so until the day before.” She referred to Code articles 431, 433.1, 415 to 420 and 956 which lay out requirements for posting notices and for confidentiality of legal opinions; she added that council will consider updating its by-law to be clearer.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs has not replied to repeated requests from the Journal for clarification, and the municipal lawyers have declined to comment, citing confidentiality.
And, in the end?
Most local residents appear confused about the social media accusations. Several cite a lack of understanding of legalities around a high-level employee’s departure.  “Did Kuhn resign or leave?” asked one resident.  “What is the difference?  Why does it matter?”
Due to the animosity of these exchanges, most residents and councillors declined to comment. Some feel it was an unfortunate series of events, due to a death in the family, and wonder why this was enough to question the legitimacy of the entire council and its budget deliberations.  A common observation was that social media is hardly the best arena for such discussions.
The accusation of biased reporting by the Journal of Council business has been
difficult to substantiate without clear examples. Among the complainants, three refused to comment on record, one threatened a lawsuit, and one sitting councillor said she preferred absolutely no coverage of council business. 
Commented one non-resident, “This has been going on for years; I don’t understand why they can’t sort it out.”